Fr John Flader: WYD Icon of Our Lady…

30 Apr 2008

By The Record

Recently I had the joy of seeing and venerating the World Youth Day Icon of Our Lady. I like icons in general but don’t know much about them. Can you tell me anything about this particular icon that will help me to appreciate it more?
The icon is a copy of the ancient and much loved image of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani, kept in the Lady Chapel of the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome.
The title Salus Populi Romani, which means literally “health” or “salvation” or “protectress of the Roman people”, takes its origin, according to a pious tradition, from the saving of Rome from the ravages of the plague during the pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604).
According to the tradition, the plague was devastating Rome, moving Pope Gregory to carry the image in solemn procession through the streets of the city during the Easter season.
When the procession reached the Mausoleum of Hadrian, a choir of angels was heard singing the Resurrection hymn “Regina coeli” (“Queen of Heaven”).
The Pope immediately added, “Pray for us to God, alleluia”.
At that point an angel, believed to be St Michael, appeared above the Mausoleum putting his sword back into its scabbard, as if indicating that the plague would now cease, and in fact it did.
Undoubtedly for this reason, a document in 1240 referred to the image as “Regina Coeli”. The Mausoleum is now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo (“Castle of the Holy Angel”).
There is another tradition that associates the image with a snowfall on the Esquiline hill in Rome in 352, during August, the hottest month of the year. It moved Pope Liberius (352-366) to build a basilica in honour of Our Lady on that spot.
For this reason, the image is sometimes known as “Our Lady of the Snows”. The Pope is said to have hung in the basilica an image of Our Lady brought to Rome by St Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.
The Liberian basilica was restored and enlarged in the following century by Pope Sixtus III (432-44), following the declaration of Mary as Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. This is the present-day basilica of St Mary Major.
The actual origin of the image is uncertain. One tradition has it that it was painted by St Luke himself and was taken to Rome by St Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.
Other dates range from the 8th to the 13th centuries. In any case, the icon is ancient and is one of the most popular images of Our Lady in Rome.
The icon is of the type known as hodegetria, a Greek word meaning “one who shows the way”.
In this type, Our Lady is ordinarily shown looking out at the viewer and pointing to her Son Jesus, who is “the way”.
In the Salus Populi Romani and WYD icons, Jesus rests on the left arm of Our Lady, his right arm slightly raised in blessing.
His index and middle finger are joined, probably indicating the divine and human natures in Christ, and the other three fingers are also joined, indicating the three divine Persons.
In his left hand he holds a book, presumably the book of the Gospels.
He is looking up lovingly at his mother, who in turn is looking out at the people.
Mary’s right hand is crossed over her left in a gentle embrace of the child. Mary appears to be drawing the viewer by her gaze to look at her divine Son.
Jesus blesses the people, including and particularly his mother, who shared most intimately in his Incarnation.
There are the traditional three stars on Mary’s shoulders and forehead, indicating her perpetual virginity, before, during and after the birth of Jesus. The letters at the top of the image refer to Mary as “Mother of God.”
Thus there is a rich history and imagery in this beautiful icon. It will do much to draw those who venerate it closer to Jesus, the Son of God and Redeemer.